July 13, 2012

Harnessing the Internet to Provide Low-Cost Higher Education

University of the People has an ambitious goal: to use the Internet to provide an extremely low-cost college education to students around the world. And the nonprofit’s big idea is starting to gain traction with grant makers.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $500,000 to support the university's effort to gain accreditation. The grant comes on the heels of recent awards by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Intel Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Since its inception in 2009, University of the People has enrolled 1,500 students from 132 countries. Courses are taught by professors from around the world who volunteer their time, and the university offers degrees in business administration and computer science.

“If you educate one person, you change his life,” says Shai Reshef, the technology executive who founded and leads the university. “If you educate many, you change the world.”

While University of the People uses the Internet to deliver courses, the organization takes a straightforward, no-bells-and-whistles approach to technology.

“Since we wanted to make sure that any person with any Internet connectivity will be able to study with us, we don't require broadband,” says Mr. Reshef. “So we don't have audio, and we don't have video.”

The wide variety of ways that students gain access to the Internet has surprised even the university's leaders.

Some students take part using dial-up connections at home, while others study from Internet cafés. To cut down on Internet café charges, some students download classroom materials to a flash drive, study and complete assignments on an offline computer, and then return to the Internet café to upload their work. Some students rely entirely on mobile phones for their Internet access.

“We didn't know it was possible, and then one of the students showed us,” says Mr. Reshef.

The one place where University of the People provides the Internet connection for students is in Haiti. There, the university is working with local charities to provide computer centers to help 250 earthquake survivors complete their studies.

Seeking Sustainability

University of the People does not charge tuition, but it does require some fees. The application fee ranges from $10 to $50, depending on the student’s country of residence. Applicants from developing countries pay less.

Starting in September, the university will charge a $100 exam-processing fee for each course. Students who cannot afford it will be able to seek contributions from donors to cover the fees on a Kiva-like Web site the university is developing or apply for a University of the People scholarship.

“The theory is that nobody will be excluded for financial reasons,” says Mr. Reshef. “But we still expect our students to help us become sustainable.”

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.